Last year, I bought a secondhand copy of Patricia Highsmith’s iconic 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt. I paid 99 cents, plus $3.99 for shipping.
I’d just begun an MFA and was working on a novel, but The Price of Salt wasn’t an assigned text for class. For months, I’d been reading my way through the queer canon, having realized a year into my marriage that I was bisexual. With that realization came a creative breakthrough: that my manuscript, a multi-vocal novel set at an art school, was at its heart a love story between its two female protagonists. I was reading queer stories to teach myself how to write one.
The Price of Salt tells the story of Therese, an aspiring stage designer whose life is altered forever when Carol, a housewife in the midst of a bitter divorce, comes into the department store where she works. Carol’s in her thirties and has been involved with women before, but Therese is, in modern parlance, a baby queer. The two women fall in love and set out on a road trip across the United States. Originally published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” and re-issued nearly forty years later as Carol under Highsmith’s real name, the novel was pioneering in its happy ending at a time when queer stories tended to end tragically, condemning their characters to suicide or heterosexual conversion.
When the book arrived, I opened it to find a letter handwritten on the inside flap:
You are Therese to me forever. I want to read this book with you, to you, through you. Forgive my handwriting, many of the notes occured [sic] on the subway, bumps and all.
Be prepared, this book is a lot. My notes are a lot. I feel a great deal for you and think you should know, because they are yours. They belong to you.
I have loved every minute I’ve had with you. As I said yesterday, I want a million more.
We both have other people that need tending to, but there is so much of my heart that wants to find its way to you. Things I shouldn’t say. This book will make my feelings more clear.
I am so happy you signed up for my class. I am so thrilled to know you. To see you. In all your glory.
Rachel, whoever she was, had left messages for Sarah on nearly every page. I flipped through them, my fingertips prickling with illicit thrill. Only later did I realize that the fact that I’d been able to go online and pay less than a dollar for this intimate relic of a relationship meant that Rachel and Sarah’s story didn’t have a happy ending.
I grew up in Costa Rica, a conservative Catholic country, and I believe this is the reason, despite the fact that my family is liberal and Jewish—my parents are American ex-pats who built a life abroad—that it took me so long to understand and accept who I’m drawn to.
I’ve always built myself through stories. Throughout my childhood, I had a constant stream of third person narration running through my head: “Antonia wanted to call Verónica, but her brother was using the internet, and when she picked up the phone the modem crackled in her ear. ‘I need to make a call!’ she yelled,” etc. This seems to be a common writerly tic: in my first semester of graduate school, we read George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” where he describes the same habit. When the professor asked, “How many of you also did that as kids?” nearly everyone raised their hand. I felt a rush of affinity for my classmates. I also felt deflated: I’d believed myself the only one.
On a recent visit to my MFA program, the writer Danielle Evans remarked that there’s something about childhood and adolescence that lends itself to the climactic structure of fiction. This rang true to me: all my life I’d turned my triumphs and sorrows—the disintegration of a friendship, a fight with my mother, my first kiss—into dramatic narrative moments. I was constantly revising myself as a character, as the protagonist of my life.
In adolescence, I had a succession of crushes on various boys; each filled the role of love interest. There were also certain girls I was drawn to, girls I found more pleasing to look at than the boys, and the feelings they stirred up in me were different somehow. Years later, writing from the perspective of a character in my novel, I described them as “brief, confusing infatuations that vacillated between attraction and reverence and jealousy, between wanting to touch the girl and wanting to be the girl. Her crushes on boys had always felt clear-cut, straightforward. Boring, even. Easier.”
These feelings made me uneasy. They changed the story that I wanted to tell about myself. I worried that I might be a lesbian. When I began dating my first boyfriend, I was relieved. I liked him; I was attracted to him—was this proof that I was straight? It didn’t occur to me that it was possible to like boys and girls. The term bisexual wasn’t in my vocabulary; I was years away from hearing the word queer not used as a slur.
I savored The Price of Salt. I held in my hands not one but two novels: a fully fleshed-out story and a second, much sparser one, nested inside it. Sometimes Rachel’s marginalia read like comments from a writing workshop. Such a great image, she wrote, next to: “The bookshelf was like a lot of fruit crates stacked up and painted red.” Other notes were conversational, as though Rachel were ping-ponging between Sarah and the book, using it as a filter through which to read her lover. When Carol asks Therese, “Do you like driving?” Rachel wrote I love driving. Do you? A few pages later: I’m headed to your house right now and you’ll sing and I wish teleportation existed.
In the chapter where Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, is first mentioned, Rachel wrote: It feels wrong to comment on anything related to Richard. I feel rather guilty. Later, during an awkward scene where Richard meets Carol for the first time (Therese introduces her as “a woman I met at the store”), Rachel noted: This meeting makes me uncomfortable. Did Sarah have a boyfriend, I wondered? How literally had Rachel meant you are Therese to me forever?
The Price of Salt was inspired by an experience Patricia Highsmith had when she was 27. She was working at Bloomingdale’s, and one day a woman in a mink coat walked in and caught her eye. In her afterword to the 1989 re-release of the novel, Highsmith described the shopper as “blondish” and seeming “to give off light.” In the The Price of Salt, Carol is described as “tall and fair…Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.” Highsmith wrote that the woman at Bloomingdale’s made her feel “odd and swimmy in the head.”
When I was 27, I met a woman who made me feel similarly. I found her magnetic and funny and electrically beautiful. She was wild-haired, taller than me and much more stylish, and in her presence I felt lightheaded and fluttery, but also unaccountably tense, on edge. When I finally admitted to myself that I was attracted to her, that I wanted to kiss her, to sink my hands into her hair, I felt—there’s no other way to describe it—as though someone had whacked me over the head with a frying pan.
Just like that, the story I’d been telling about myself changed. I wasn’t straight, I couldn’t be: here was a woman I unambiguously wanted to fuck. I recalled the frightening feelings I’d had as a teenager. This time, though, exhilaration overshadowed my fear. It wasn’t just that I was an adult—I had queer friends now, an openly gay brother. The word bisexual was in my vocabulary; I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Call Me By Your Name and My Education.
I was also married. To a man. I’d been attracted to people other than my husband before, but never this intensely. I wanted to go to bed with this woman; I thought about it constantly. I’d had encounters with women before: as a kid, I’d “practiced” making out with a friend, and I’d kissed women in college, encounters that I shrugged off as youthful experimentation. But I’d never dated or slept with a woman, and now I wanted to, very badly, and I couldn’t.
Just as adolescence lends itself to the climactic structure of fiction, so too does the beginning of a love affair.
I love how instant it is, Rachel wrote of Therese and Carol’s first meeting: “Therese saw her walk slowly toward the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass.” Does Therese understand in the moment or just go on instinct and desire.How many women had read The Price of Salt and recognized themselves in Therese and Carol, believing themselves the only ones?
I analyzed Rachel’s marginalia, trying to piece together portraits of her and Sarah. I decided that Sarah was very young, because Rachel had underlined, “At nineteen, [Therese] was anxious.” Jesus. I forgot this bit. This book is perfect for you. Rachel seemed older: she referenced the Garden State DVD commentary and wrote Gifts are definitely Carol’s love language. I pictured her as heavily tattooed and kind of punk, because she’d circled “Flung out of space”—something Carol says to Therese after telling her, “What a strange girl you are”—and written, Fighting all urges to get this as my next tattoo. And of the scene where Therese fantasizes about giving away the merchandise at the department store (“It really is too expensive, but I’ll give it to you,” she imagines saying. “Frankenberg’s won’t miss it.”), Rachel wrote I love her so much and I do this. So Rachel was a rule-breaker. I wondered how she’d met Sarah. I kept going back to the line I am so happy you signed up for my class. Was she enough of a rule-breaker to have an affair with her student?
Sometimes it seemed like Rachel was in love with the story itself, and I wondered how much of her mapping her real relationship onto the fictional one was wishful thinking. Was she displaying that urge to particularize the universal, perceiving as unique an experience that’s actually incredibly common? Was she constructing a grand romantic narrative? How many women had read The Price of Salt and recognized themselves in Therese and Carol, believing themselves the only ones?
One night the woman appeared in my dreams, skinny-dipping in a lake. I stood on the shore, fully clothed, shivering. She held out her hand: “Get in!” But my feet were stuck in the sand; I laughed and shook my head. When I woke up I looked over at my husband sleeping next to me, and I felt myself flood with sadness and with love for him.
My husband was the first person I told. It had been a year since we’d exchanged vows under a pale green chuppah. We’d met our junior year at Brown at an off-campus party: he’d walked into the living room, a tall, slender boy in corduroy pants, and locked eyes with me from across the crowd. I was immediately besotted with him, with his faint Southern accent, his flamboyant hand-sewn jackets. He was an artist, a painter, and I loved to watch him work, loved the way he seemed to be dancing with the canvas. We dated through the rest of college, and when we graduated we moved to New Orleans together, to an old shotgun house where he built me bookshelves and let me talk him into adopting three cats. When I decided to quit my teaching job and get an MFA, we packed up our car and drove the eighteen hours to Minneapolis, where he learned to cross-country ski and gifted me ice skates.
My husband was the person who knew me best, but there were still things I kept private, things about myself that I didn’t acknowledge or even fully understand. But this realization felt so momentous that withholding it seemed like lying. Out of town for the weekend and unable to wait any longer, I texted him with shaking hands.
He replied right away: “That’s awesome. I’m glad you told me.”
I was relieved, but later I couldn’t help probing at his response. I asked him if he’d feel differently if I’d confessed to being attracted to another man. He was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said. “It would be different.”
I asked him if sleeping with a woman outside our marriage would be less like cheating than sleeping with another man. “Not if I could be a part of it in some way,” he told me.
In the months that followed we had lots of conversations about the hypersexualization of bisexual women and the latent sexism in the assumption that a woman posed less of a threat to our marriage than a man. I myself harbored these biases: I had no compunctions about telling him why I was attracted to this woman—it was her confidence, I said, the mannish quality of her beauty—whereas I would never have shared the details of my crush on another man. And when my husband and I saw the woman at social gatherings, I took pleasure in seeing them flirt, watching them surreptitiously from across the room. Once, tipsy on our way home from a party, he said, “I’m seducing her for both of us.” I replied, “God, I love you.”
The thought of the three of us thrilled me, but it also felt like a kind of foreclosing: my queerness could flower if I wanted it to, but only inside the margins of my marriage.
All this time I was working on my novel. I’d been laboring over the manuscript for years and, aside from my husband, it was the only constant in my life, almost as dear to me as he was. Now that I’d landed on the story’s emotional crux—two women painters meeting at art school and falling in love—it was finally starting to coalesce. One of the women, Louisa, I modeled after my husband: I gave her his hometown in southwestern Louisiana, his thoughtfulness, his knack for woodworking, his pure, uncomplicated love of painting.
The other woman, Karina, proved trickier to write. She’d started out as the novel’s antagonist, but the more I wrote her, the more I fell in love with her. And the more I loved her, the more trouble I had nailing down her contours of her personality. Gradually, Karina took on some of the qualities of the woman I was infatuated with: like her, she was blunt and self-possessed. But in another way, Karina also came to resemble me: it terrified her to not feel in control.
When I wrote scenes with Louisa and Karina together, I sometimes imagined them as the woman and me, little doll figures that I moved about on the stage of my mind. Those passages were the easiest to write; they seemed to emerge from me fully formed.
I love when stories come out of you, Rachel wrote. Makes me want to write a poem about all the pieces, moments, emotions that add up to falling in love.
I began reading Rachel and Sarah’s relationship through the prism of Therese and Carol’s when I saw that Rachel had written, Has it bothered you at all that you’re dating a (technically) married woman? Pretty great start to your queer adventures. I gasped out loud; the cat in my lap startled and leapt to the floor. In a passage a couple of pages later, the morning after Therese spends her first night with Carol, Richard tells her, “You’re different today.” Rachel circled this line and wrote: I’m curious if Sam will notice anything different in you.
I flipped back to the letter at the beginning: We both have other people that need tending to. So Rachel was married and Sarah had a boyfriend. My mind spun. Rachel hadn’t been particularizing the universal: she’d been living out this story in real life. I pictured her as an unhappily married adjunct locking eyes with a beautiful undergraduate. I pictured Sarah as Therese: naive, uncertain, hopeful.
But later, I second-guessed myself. Was I indulging my tendency to tell myself stories, ones that weren’t necessarily true? Was I filling in the blanks to suit the narrative I wanted to read? There was another, much less romantic way of looking at this story: maybe Rachel had used The Price of Salt as an excuse to pursue an inappropriate relationship with a student, breaking up her marriage. I had no access, after all, to Sarah’s side of the story. All I knew was that Rachel had given her this novel in August 2018, and that six months later it had ended up on Thriftbooks.
Another night I dreamt about her again, but this time she wasn’t her, she was my old friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. In my dream we were lying on two twin beds pushed together. We were drunk, silly; she was confessing that she was attracted to me. Later we were at a party, a stranger’s darkened living room, bass shaking the floor, outside it was snowy and still, she was kissing me, her long hair falling over my face.
I’ve started looking at myself differently since you, Rachel wrote to Sarah. You continually surprise me.
Sometimes I say that I like to read novels for the most selfish of reasons: to entertain myself. But that’s not the whole truth. I read fiction because it’s way of rewriting myself. Over and over, I’ve recognized myself in fictional characters whose lives, on the surface, bear little resemblance to mine. Often that recognition surprises me, revealing something—a belief, a sensibility, a bias—that I was unaware of until that moment. It makes me wonder how much of me remains uncharted territory.
And I worry, sometimes, that I’ve rewritten myself too many times. How messy it is to be both the subject and the writer of my own story! What is the difference between reinterpreting my past and rewriting it? Did I repress my sexuality or was it dormant, waiting for the right person to reawaken it? Did I not understand myself? Or did I change—was I a different person than I am now? Which is the more compelling story? And how can I be sure the one I’ve landed on is true?
In the novel’s denouement, Carol is forced to end her road trip with Therese and return to New York to fight a custody battle against her husband. Under the terms of their brokered agreement, her relationship with Therese cannot continue. I shouldn’t say this, Rachel wrote, because I can’t promise you anything, but I do not feel we are over. How can it be? Reading this, I felt the weight of twin sorrows: the end of Therese and Carol’s affair, and of Rachel and Sarah’s, too. One was real and the other wasn’t, but both of them felt true.
But in its closing pages, the novel took a last-minute turn. A heartbroken Therese returns to New York to rebuild her life. After a brief flirtation with an actress, she decides she can’t let Carol go, and sets out to find her at a restaurant she frequents: “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses…in heaven and in hell…Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing…Therese walked toward her.” On the book’s last page, Rachel wrote: I’ve enjoyed reading this book with you. I miss you with a dull ache in my chest. How did this happen so quickly. I adore you. That’s where the novel—novels?—ends.
In her afterword to the 1989 re-release of The Price of Salt, Highsmith recalled “receiving envelopes of 10 or 15 letters a couple times a week and for months on end” following the novel’s original publication. “Many of the letters that came to me,” she wrote, “carried such messages as…‘Thank you for writing such a story. It is a little like my own story…’”
Here’s another story: a writer is married to an artist she adores. She can’t imagine being without him. That threesome they discussed hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. She feels a little shortchanged that she hasn’t gotten to experience sex with a woman, but she’s unwilling to give up her marriage for it. Without the marriage, without him, she’d be a different person.
She keeps The Price of Salt on a bookshelf her husband built for her. Sometimes she opens it and thumbs through it. It reminds her that the stories she clings to about herself, even now, may not end up being true. It’s not a novel about marriage, but it makes her think about the contracts lovers make with each other, about how both pairs of women—Carol and Therese, Rachel and Sarah—broke one contract in the forging of another. She thinks about the contract she made with her husband when she married him. She knows that the events of the past two years should’ve made her question its foundation, but they’ve only made her more certain that she’ll honor it for the rest of her life. He’s a patient and generous reader, her husband. He reads and rereads each of her revisions of herself, just as he’s read more drafts of her novel than either of them can count.
But there are times when the woman encounters her other selves in her work. When she writes, she inhabits other people. It’s like opening a door and stepping out into another life. It’s through fiction above all that she’s come to understand her queerness, the marginalia of herself. Still, it’s elusive. It’s her, but it’s also a separate character, one she’s still writing.
Her desires creep into her dreams. She experiences them from the perspective of the character she embodies in the dream—sometimes it’s her, sometimes it’s someone else. The things that happen to her in these dreams seem external but are in fact generated by her own mind. She’s both the context of the dream—its tone, its setting, its plot—and its subject.
She’s never been able to lucid dream. The moment she realizes she’s dreaming—that she’s both the story’s protagonist and the story itself—is the moment the dream falls apart and she wakes up.